Monday, April 20, 2015

Guest Post: Guns First, and That's Great! What's Next for Activists?

This is a guest post from A3Teacher, an Ann Arbor teacher who posts here from time to time.

For many Ann Arbor community members, an issue of whether guns should be allowed in schools is one that has a clear answer: NO.  Many, many families, parents, and students came to board meetings expressing their strong convictions against having guns in our public community schools. The board, on April 15th voted for a resolution banning guns from our schools.  In Ann Arbor, rallying against guns in schools is easy.  On an issue that has such clear and logical implications, it is easy for parents, teachers, community members, and students to get on board with and advocate against guns in our schools.  

I love that families made posters.  I love that there were community members who came week after week to speak to the board.  I love that community members were unafraid to speak for the safety and well-being of our students and staff.  And I would love if this enthusiasm and passion made its way into other areas of concern for Ann Arbor Public Schools and the State of Michigan.  Many decision makers stopped listening to teacher voices years ago (or perhaps teachers need to speak out more clearly, loudly, and with a unified voice), and the reality is that we need more parents, families, and students, to raise their voices about issues pertaining to their schools.

The issue of guns in schools was easy because there was a pretty clear outcome from the beginning; most people, I believe, knew that ultimately (whether now or later) guns would not be a permanent fixture in our schools.  This was an easy issue to get on board with and add to the cadre of voices echoing the same perspective.  There are many other issues that are complex, require a lot of time, discussion, and consideration that are not as clear cut.  Below are two that I think are important to AAPS’ success in the future as well as questions to ask of your leaders (principals, district administration, etc.), and actions parents, students, and community members could take.  I welcome thoughts in the comments section.  

1. New and new to district teacher compensation.  In 2013 the Economic Policy Institute listed Ann Arbor as Michigan’s most expensive city in which to live.  With freezes, cuts, increased contributions from employees to benefits, and partial freezes to those who increased their educational levels, Ann Arbor and the State of Michigan must consider how it will retain “the best and the brightest.”  Back in 2002 the State Board of Education laid out specifics in their document “Ensuring Excellent Educators”, yet there is much left to be desired in regard to the work outlined in this task force report.  If our state economy is recovering, as our Governor insists, shouldn’t we be investing some of that money back into schools instead of raiding the K-12 School Aid Fund to pay for the general budget deficit?  [Editor's Note: On May 5th you can vote for an Ann Arbor schools bond renewal, and for Proposal 1, which will keep some monies in the School Aid Fund.]

If it cares about attracting and retaining very high quality teachers (as opposed to allowing mediocre or poor teachers to latch onto the system and hide until it’s too late to dismiss them), it must wisely invest in its younger teachers. Otherwise, newer teachers and millennials will move and find other cities, states, and districts to work for.  Perhaps this means that teachers, families, AAPS, and community members need to lobby in Lansing and actively enter the realm of politics in an organized fashion.  The largest factor in student growth and learning is not computers or technology, it is not a specific curriculum or fancy buildings, it is the quality of its teachers (one of many sources confirms this concept).  Teachers are the most important and influential factor in student growth.  It is time to show its teachers that they are valued.  

Questions to ask:  
  1. How is Ann Arbor actively retaining and rewarding its best teachers?  
  2. How is Ann Arbor showing its teachers that it values the work that they do besides a salary and benefits?  
  3. Why has Ann Arbor frozen “steps” (a type of pay increase teachers get with seniority)?
  4. Why has Ann Arbor chosen not to fully recognize (with compensation) teachers who increase their education?

[Editor's Note: Similar questions could be asked in other districts. In Dexter they are having big issues with health insurance; in Ypsilanti, the pay rates for teachers are very low.]

Actions you could take:
  1. Send an email to your school’s teacher or administrator about teachers who do fantastic things for your students.  Conversely, also send messages about teachers who are not so great.  If we want to increase the number of great teachers in schools, administration needs to hear not only about the great teachers, but also about the not-so-great ones.  
  2. Attend a board meeting and share a story about how a teacher has positively impacted your student (In the past, families have used board meetings to raise issues of problematic teachers, but I have yet to see a parent, family, or student tell a positive story about a teacher.  Perhaps this is because there is an assumption that all teachers should be doing their jobs with or without recognition).  
  3. Write a letter to board members and Dr. Swift directly (the entire board and the superintendent can be reached at or individual board e-mails are available here, and Dr. Swift can be reached at asking them some or all of the questions above.  
  4. Contact your legislators and ask them what they are doing in order to support increased funding to schools and teacher retention (you can find your representatives here and your senators here).  If you dig deeper and look at bills up for proposal, ask your legislators to vote for or against specific aspects of those bills.  It is not as effective to simply ask legislators to provide more funding to schools - be specific in regard to current legislation.  

2. Standardized tests and common assessments have taken over a large portion of schools’ calendars.  These can be used to drive instruction, although I have yet to see it truly used successfully.  There is a growing movement that questions the benefits of these tests to students, their validity of the actual tests, and their use in regard to teacher evaluations and instruction.  There are many independent schools that (as a selling point) tout the fact that they do not overload their students with the types of standardized tests that many public schools do.  Besides teacher-created classroom assessments and school-wide exams (given two to three times per year dependant on the high school), a high school junior next year could potentially have:
  • the SAT,
  • the ACT WorkKeys,
  • the M-STEP,
  • any AP tests,
  • district common assessment/s (dependant on the subject),
  • building specific assessments in content areas (known as SMART Goals - this changes based on the subject and department’s decision),
  • the SRI twice (which measures Lexile reading scores).  

Questions to ask:  
  1. How is each of these these assessments and tests necessary for our students?  
  2. How are these assessments and tests representative of growth and learning?  
  3. Will my student(s) be able to use their test scores in order to learn and grow?  
  4. How can we be smart, as a district, with the data that comes out of standardized testing so that it positively impacts learning and growth?  Which tests could we cut?
  5. Why is the state using texts which have not been validated or used before?

Actions you could take:
  1. Ask questions of your district and board of education.  Ask questions by speaking at a board meeting or through writing.  Become a part of the public record and seek answers.  In addition, this shows the board and district that parents, families, and students have a vested interest in their schools.  Remaining silent send the (perhaps unintentional) message that the public agrees with the decisions of the district and board.    
Ask questions of your State Board of Education - you can do this in person, via phone, or in writing (Ann Arbor also has two board members who live in town:  Eileen Weiser, a Republican and John Austin, a Democrat).   

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  1. I was struck by this phrase: "as opposed to allowing mediocre or poor teachers to latch onto the system and hide until it’s too late to dismiss them." I assume that this is saying "it's too late" after a teachers receive tenure. I support the concept of tenure, but I think that it's interesting that the implicit assumption in this post is that after 5 years no one can be touched. The Ann Arbor News ran a year ago indicating that only two tenured employees had been dismissed in a decade ( -- in both cases for actions that unrelated to their abilities in the classroom.

    Again, my point isn't to attack tenure, and I understand that we live in a world where losing a teaching job is so rare that being dismissed for being below average could have devastating consequences. My point is that it's odd that the assumption is that a person's ability to do a job becomes irrelevant if someone survives 5 years.

  2. Thanks for the comment Pete. I do believe that it is challenging to get rid of a teacher once he/she has made it to tenure. While I am not opposed to tenure, I think that you will find that exceptional teachers are frustrated about working with mediocre or poor teachers. This isn't to say that those mediocre teachers are not caring individuals who mean well - often I feel that there are individuals who do care about students and kids, but caring about students doesn't inherently make a person a great teacher. Even when you look at private schools (which theoretically should have an easy job getting rid of teachers since many of them are at-will employees) they don't seem to get rid of mediocre to poor teachers either.

    The larger issue is that in order to get rid of a teacher with tenure it requires administration create a paper trail - there must be documented issues with that teacher as well as documented attempts to help that teacher. As administration has more and more responsibilities, I would question whether this is a focus, or whether administration relies heavily on initial hiring interviews as a barrier to keeping out mediocre teachers (but then what about those teachers who interview well but struggle in the classroom?). Even more frustrating is that parents and families know which teachers' classrooms they do not want their students/kids in and they avoid those teachers - what ends up happening is that the exceptional teachers's classes are overloaded with students while the mediocre teachers teach less students. Administration needs to be on the poor teachers immediately and needs to actively work to observe and actively create a paper trail if necessary.

  3. I'd be happy if we could start with getting rid of *poor* (not mediocre) teachers [and principals]. There are many fewer poor teachers, and yet I have met several who are allowed to continue to teach. I don't think tenure is the issue with poor teachers. I think the issue is that principals and other administrators have to document, document, document. Many of them are not willing to do that; sometimes the administration does not really support them in doing that; and often they have little or no training in how to document. There is a reason that in other large companies, the human resources department really helps to back people up.

    When we talk about mediocre teachers, we are talking about a much wider diversity of teachers, and it is a bit more complicated. Teachers are mediocre for a number of different reasons, and the solutions are not always the same. Here are a few reasons that I have seen:
    --teacher is himself/herself sick, or has a family member who is sick [in this case, the year is likely to be mediocre, but the teacher may otherwise be a very good teacher--encouraging teachers to use the Family and Medical Leave Act (or a year's leave) is a good thing, but it may not solve the problem for the students, who have already had a partially disrupted year]
    --new teacher--may or may not just need support
    --teacher recently switched subjects (may have been certified in English and French but hasn't actually taught French for several years) or age groups (certified K-8 but has been teaching middle school and moving down to second grade is a shock). Here the support may be needed in subject matter or techniques.
    --teacher is burned out--may have at one point been a good teacher--I have seen a lot of teachers in this situation. I think they should be encouraged to find something else to do! [There is a reason that this post has been popular:] That might mean moving into administration, or out of the school system.
    --teacher has not mastered classroom management--again, support can be given.

    Teaching is no different from any other profession; there are excellent performers, poor performers, and adequate performers. When we say "mediocre" are we saying that they are adequate but not great, or not adequate? That's where the discernment needs to happen, and if the answer is: not adequate, we need to be able to say why, and whether that is correctable. And principals are a key linchpin in dealing with this issue. Too often they just ignore it.

    I can say that I always thought I would like middle school teaching, and that I would be an excellent middle school teacher. After doing my student teaching in middle school, I concluded that I liked the age group but felt if I was going to teach middle school I would move fairly quickly from ok to excellent and then to mediocre--say over a period of 6 years. I figured it would take a couple of years to get up to speed in terms of classroom management and materials, and that a few years after that I would get very bored of the materials (because really there is a limit to how many times I could enjoy teaching Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl), and out of boredom, probably slide into mediocrity. That's just me...for some teachers, the kids themselves are enough change.